At what time does summer give way to autumn? The weatherman will tell you it is on the autumn equinox when the hours of daylight are equal to those of darkness; the 21st September. I'm not sure that our farmers would agree. Ideally they would like to get the harvest in and much of the autumn seeding finished well before then. And what about the birds? It seems that hardly has the spring migration north finished, when some species commence the return migration. Certainly as early as July the return passage of waders is well underway, although many of the birds passing through our shores during this month will be failed breeders.
By September bird migration is truly in full swing with many of our summer nesting song birds already departed and others "feeding up" near the coast before their long excursion south.
On September 17th , I took the opportunity to really get amongst the migration by joining a boat trip of other bird watchers in to The Wash from Boston. The Wash is a unique habitat in Britain combining a mosaic of sand bars and mudflats at low tide with areas of often, surprisingly choppy seas, bordered in many places by extensive salt marsh and at Frampton and parts of the Norfolk coast valuable grazing marshes. Fortunately the sea was quite calm on the day I went out, which was in total contrast to the frenzied activity of migrating birds. Flocks of fishing Sandwich Terns were being harassed by piratical Arctic Skuas who would follow every aerial twist and turn of the agile terns until they gave up their catch, recalling the dog fight sequences in the film of The Battle of Britain. Gannets fished in the deeper water, plunging in to the waves like gossamer spears and every few minutes a cry would go up as something new was spotted. Great Skuas or Bonxies as they are known in the Scottish islands where they nest in the turf, would rise from the sea and fly off on powerful wings. They are the predators of the oceans and rather than eat the fish a tern has caught, they would eat the tern! Guillemots were also much in evidence, looking strangely out of place to me, as I am much more used to seeing them on their cliff ledge breeding sites in mid summer.
Not all the birds in the wash were out-going by any means. Many of the wading birds we saw huddled together on the sand bars will stay with us for the winter and the skeins of Pink-footed geese flying south across the wash to the Norfolk coast were the first of many thousands returning to winter on the farmland of North Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
The waders at this season are particularly interesting as the plumage variation in one species can be very diverse. Take Bar-tailed Godwits for example; some adults were still resplendent in their gaudy orange plumage whilst others had already assumed the anonymous grey brown of winter and juvenile birds looked different again. Picking out half a dozen Curlew Sandpipers in a flock of hundreds of similar sized Dunlin provides an ID challenge for even a seasoned "Twitcher"! For many though the spectacle of thousands of Knot wheeling round the skies in wing to wing formation and seemingly all altering course in perfect harmony is the pinnacle of birding on the Lincolnshire coast.
As I write in early October the leaves are turning to a beautiful array of gold, yellow, red and brown and the early mornings are distinctly chilly with heavy dews. Tawny Owls, the subject of a nationwide survey by the BTO, are very vocal as the adults evict their young from their territories. Rippingale is blessed with a thriving population of these owls as anyone who sleeps with their bedroom window open will confirm.
Many mammals also disperse in the autumn and the tiny Muntjac deer my wife saw in Station Street at 6.30 one morning, was probably a young animal seeking a territory of its' own. These tiny deer were liberated from Woburn in Bedfordshire about a century ago and have gradually colonised much of the country. If you want to see one yourself a dawn or dusk visit to any of the local woodlands is usually productive. They are not much bigger than hares so are not easily confused with the more common fallow deer.
September and even October can be very rewarding months for insect watchers too. Moth trapping can be very lucrative, producing a garden list the equal to a birders life list. For those with more diurnal tendencies autumn butterflies include the ragged winged Comma flitting along sunlit hedges and woodland edge, Speckled Wood, Wall Brown, a few lingering Large Whites and the splendid Red Admiral. Dragonflies too enjoy an "Indian Summer" and a Southern Hawker remained in my garden well into October. A visit to the impressive Deeping Lakes nature reserve in early October produced dozens of Common Darters several of the, less common, blood red Ruddy Darter and a few late Migrant Hawkers. This reserve is well worth visiting at any time of year with nature trails, newly constructed hides and excellent wetland habitat.
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